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Their eyes were watching God is widely considered to be the best novel written by Zora Neale Hurston. It was published in 1937, after the waning of the cultural openness that had allowed the Harlem resistance to flourish. The book was received rather poorly at the time and was criticized for presenting a relaxed and easy view of the life of black people in Southern America. It is believed that the novel was written in a span of seven weeks while Nora pursued her anthropological research in Haiti.
Black authors at the time were focused on writing social realism, a genre associated with the radical left-wing, and it was meant to highlight the poor treatment of the black community. Their Eyes were Watching God failed to follow that trend. Prominent black authors of the time felt that the novel presented a caricature of black life that was meant to please white people. In a scathing review, black novelist Richard Wright wrote that the book could not be seen as serious fiction and felt that it presented no themes or messages whatsoever.
Zora Neale Hurston's work was rediscovered in the 1970s, primarily due to the efforts of Alice Grant, and other prominent black scholars who recognized the celebration of black culture in her work.
The book begins with the return of Janie Crawford to the town of Eatonville, Florida. She's been gone for a year and a half and is wearing a pair of muddy overalls. The porches of the town are set ablaze with gossip, as the townspeople wonder where the forty-year-old woman's young thirty-year-old lover is, and why he isn't with her. Janie stops for a brief greeting but doesn't make conversation with anyone, and simply makes her way home. Phoeby Watson, Janie's best friend, rushes to her friend's home with a plate of food and finds her sitting on the back porch. Phoeby inquires where Janie has been, and whether she had been betrayed by Teacake of all her money. Janie replies that she has only returned because Teacake has gone and that she still had all her money. Janie then begins to recount her story to Phoeby.
She begins with a description of her childhood. Janie was raised by her grandmother, who worked as a nanny for a white family. She grew up with the other white children on the premises and only learned that she was black when she was six years old. The other children made fun of Janie for living with the white family, and so her nanny moved them to an independent home. Janie spent a lot of time in the backyard, and at the age of 16, she had her first kiss. That day also marked the beginning of her conscious days, as her Nanny caught her kissing a boy and decided that the 16-year-old Janie was now ready to be married to the old and wealthy Logan Killicks. Nanny also told Janie about her life, how she had been forced to flee with her daughter, Leafy, only a few days after giving birth to her. Since her master's wife had been angry that the baby had appeared white. Once the civil war had ended, Nanny had tried to provide her daughter with all the opportunities, but alas Leafy's life was ruined when she was raped by her school teacher. Leafy began to drink heavily and turned away from her responsibilities as a mother forcing Nanny to raise Janie. Nanny was determined to do right by Janie, and so had decided to marry her off to Logan Killicks.
Janie was very reluctant to marry Logan but believed that it would end her loneliness and that she would one day grow to love him as all married couples are supposed to do. This notion was short-lived as her marital bond with Logan never blossomed, and Janie confessed to her grandmother that she could never grow to love him. Janie's grandmother died soon after that conversation, and Logan's attitude towards Janie began to turn. He became more demanding and wanted her to participate more heavily in the farming duties. Janie resisted the demands he made, but Logan then began to insult her upbringing and her family background. Janie then meets the rich and ambitious Jody Starks who has heard the news of a town being built by black people and desires to buy in big. He becomes infatuated with Janie and promises her a life of luxury and happiness as his wife. Janie leaves Logan the next day after they have a severe argument, and marries Jody Starks.
The newly married couple arrives in the town of Eatonville, which is barely more than a couple of buildings at that point. Jody takes immediate charge of the situation, he buys a handsome amount of land from a neighboring landlord and begins to build a store. He organizes a committee to clear roads and has them install a streetlamp after holding an elaborate ceremony. Jody is appointed as the mayor of the town unanimously on the first night of the store's opening, on the same night, he prevents Janie from making a speech as he tells everyone that her place is in the home.
The townspeople soon begin to nurture resentment against the rich Jody Starks, as he seeks to elevate himself against the rest of the town. They all note how badly he behaves with Jody whenever she makes a mistake in the store. Janie grows to hate working in the store due to the complex nature of the arithmetic, and how Jody prevents her from socializing with the rest of the townsfolk. Jody makes Janie cover her long and straight hair as he grows insecure, and even beats Janie once for serving him poorly cooked food. As time progresses, Jody's physical appearance deteriorates and he becomes more verbally abusive in an attempt to make her believe that she too has aged as fast as him. They get into an argument in front of the whole town, and Janie angrily questions Jody's manhood, which leads him to believe that she has destroyed his reputation. Their relationship continues to deteriorate along with Jody's health. Janie calls in a doctor who tells her that Jody is sure to die soon due to the failure of his kidneys.
Jody dies while Janie is trying to have a legitimate conversation with him for the first time in their relationship. Janie is left with a sizable amount of wealth after his death, and being only thirty-five years of age, she is considered to be quite attractive. She has to fight off suitors nearly daily as they drive from all over to ingratiate themselves. Janie explores independence for the first time in her life and is reluctant to be with anyone else until she meets Teacake. He is a young man in his early twenties who treats Janie as an equal. Teacake courts Janie very deliberately and slowly dismisses all her concerns. The town observes their courtship and begins to gossip about the two of them. Janie decides to sell her store and move away with Teacake to start a new life. She goes to him in Jacksonville, where they get married and spend a blissful week in each other's company. Janie wakes up one morning to find her money gone along with Teacake. She begins to fear that he had merely brought her out to cheat her of her money, but Teacake returns home the next morning. He explains that he had used her money to throw a feast for his friends so that he could experience what it was like to be a rich man. However, he manages to retrieve all the money that he spends due to his superior gambling ability.
They then leave to go to the Everglades, where Teacake farms beans in the morning and gambles at night. A huge wave of migrants follows them there as the season begins, and Janie inserts herself readily into the life of the muck. Janie's love for Teacake continues to grow and she beings to go to the fields with him as he doesn't wish to be without her. There Janie first experiences the meaning of jealousy, and Teacake has a similar experience when Janie begins to interact with Mrs. Turner, a local restaurant owner. Mrs. Turner is a severe racist despite being partially black, and Teacake overhears Mrs. Turner trying to set Janie up with her brother. Teacake beats Janie to prove that she belongs to him when Mrs. Turner visits the muck. Teacake and Janie stay throughout the year until the next growing season, and Janie begins to notice the tribes of the Native Americans leaving the glades. They explain that they are leaving the Glades to shelter from a hurricane. Teacake and several other workers dismiss the inclement weather and remain on the shores of the lake. The hurricane arrives in all its fury, causing everyone to flee before the rising waters of the lake. Janie and Teacake are forced to leave in the middle of the night, but teacake is bitten by a mad dog as he attempts to rescue Janie from drowning. Janie and Teacake find a sleeping place in a town and return to the glades after a couple of days.
Life has almost gone back to normal in the glades when Teacake suddenly becomes sick. It is then learned that he has a fatal sickness from the dog bite, and the doctor cautions Janie about Teacake's mental decline. Teacake continues to worsen, and his mind is clouded by unfounded suspicion and doubt about Janie's intentions. He tries to kill her, and Janie shoots him in self-defense. She is cleared by a court of mostly white jurists, while the black people feel that Janie has gotten away with murder. Janie eventually wins back the trust of the community but feels that the Glades hold nothing for her without Teacake, and so she returns to Eatonville.
Zora Neale Hurston
September 18, 1937
Novel, Psychological Fiction
J. B. Lippincott
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